Agape

 

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As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (John 15:9)

The scene is the upper room, Jesus with His disciples. It is evening, the evening of His betrayal leading to His arrest, trial and crucifixion. He washed their feet. He gave them His Body as bread, His Blood as wine. He taught them. He prayed for them. It’s in this context, the context of His impending death, His laying down His life for the life of the world, that Jesus says, As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.

Love. The word comes up several times in the Gospel and Epistle reading. “Abide in my love. Greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friends. Love one another.” Love is a slippery word. Frightening sometimes. The Greeks had four words, we only have one unfortunately.

The Greeks could speak of storge, nurtured, needy love. A child nestling the breast of his mother. A mother dog with her litter. What CS Lewis described as “all in a squaking, nuzzling heap together, purrings, lickings, baby-talk, milk, warmth, the smell of young life.” There is no need to command this sort of love. It’s instinctual.

There is eros. Erotic love, passionate love. The is the love we “fall into” when we “fall in love.” It is sexual, romantic, moving. The Song of Solomon speaks in these terms. Again, it requires no commandment except to keep it properly confined.

There is philos, the love of friendship. Philadelphia. Brotherly love. It’s the love of friends, the people you like and who like you. It’s two people walking side by side in trust. You can trust your friend with your backside and a loaded gun. Like the others, it requires no commandment. This is about the people we like. Who needs a commandment to love those we like?

Then there is agape, the word from today’s text. Sacrificial love. Laying down one’s life for another love. Unconditional love. Love to the loveless and unloveable. Divine love. God is agape, God is love. This love goes to the very essence of God. This love has its source in God Himself. The Father loves the Son. The Father loves the world by sending the Son. The Son loves by laying down His life, offering Himself, giving Himself up. This love is an act of will, an act of promise, a divine will to love that which is not loveable. It is the only kind of love that must be commanded. There is no need to command storge, eros, and philos. They all happen. But not agape, it must created and called forth.

Paul wrote a description of agape in his first letter to the Corinthians. This is sometimes read at weddings, and that’s fine, but the actual context is the Christian congregation. He says agape is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Agape bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, patiently endures all things.

You say, “I can’t love that way,” and you’re right. You can’t. This is God’s love – His love to you, and His love through you to others. You can’t love this way. God loves in this way, and you get to be in that love. That’s why Jesus begins not with a commandment to love but with His own love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” The first thing is to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ love. To abide in His love.

How do you do that? By keeping His commandments. Don’t get distracted by the word commandments. If I say mandates, will that help? Mandates. “If you keep, cling to, hold fast to, my mandates, you will abide in my love. What does this mean? We could paraphrase it this way: As you live your Baptism, hear my Word, eat and drink my Body and Blood, you will abide in my love for you. Those are His mandates. That’s why they are so important. Not as commands to make God love us, but as means by which we abide in His love which is always there.

Love is not an abstract verb. It is always concrete, an action verb. In love, Jesus lays down His life to save. In love, He joins us to Himself in His death and life in Baptism. In love, He gives us His Body and Blood. In love, He forgives us, feeds us, clothes us, blesses us. And we abide in His love as we place ourselves into the beam of His love. His love forces no one. But be forewarned. You can’t claim to love Jesus yet hate His mandates. You can’t claim to love Jesus yet despise His Baptism. You can’t claim to love Jesus yet reject his forgiveness.

You can’t claim to love Jesus and stay away from His Supper. I can claim to love my wife, but if I’m never at home and we’re never together, you will rightly begin to question my love, and so will she.

Agape is not an option. It goes with the flow. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have love you.” Jesus’ love comes first. He loves you death in His death on the cross. He lays down His life for you and calls you His “friend.” What a friend we have in Jesus! You didn’t choose Him, even if it seemed as though you did. You may have decided to follow Him, committed your life to Him, pray to Him, to obey Him, and you well you should, but you didn’t choose Him. He chose you.

He chose you and appointed you to bear fruit, lasting, abiding fruit. Fruit that doesn’t rot, fruit with no expiration date. That fruit is, in one word, love. Most of what we do every day is temporal and temporary. We build buildings that one day crumble. We bandage wounds on bodies that will one day die. Sermons are forgotten. Paint peels. Wood rots. Metal rusts. Weeds take over what once were lovely gardens. Most of what we have done in our lives will be forgotten, undone, lost completely. But not agape, love. Love never ceases because God never ceases to be. Prophesies pass away, tongues go quiet, knowledge evaporates. But love endures. Love abides. Love goes from death to life. Love survives the grave. Love never dies. Love never goes away for God is love.

These things I command you so that you love one another. Hear that sentence carefully. Jesus does not command His disciple to love one another. That was Moses who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Instead, Jesus commands His disciples to abide in His love, to cling to His mandates, in order that, with the result that they love one another. This is the uniqueness of Jesus and of faith in Him. He doesn’t command us to do something, but to remain somewhere, to stick to His love for us, to be on the receiving end of His self-giving love. And the result of that, the fruit of that will be the same Jesus-reflecting love for one another.

Love is the fruit of faith. They inextricably bound together, yet they are different. Faith is the relationship, love is the product of that relationship. Faith is trust, passive abiding trust that clings to the promises of God in Christ, that clings to Jesus’ mandates in Baptism, Word, and Supper, that clings to Jesus’ death and resurrection, that holds fast to the forgiveness, life, and salvation that come from Jesus. Love happens when faith happens.

Fruit is a great image because fruit happens when the conditions are right. My old, craggy apricot tree is full of apricots this year. I think it knows somehow that it’s about to be cut down. The branches are sagging with fruit this year. I don’t do much for that tree except the occasional pruning to keep it out of the power lines. Last year we had a few apricots; some years none at all. But every year it was an apricot tree and never ceased to be one. When the conditions were right, the right combination of cold, warm, wet, dry, and all the other things that were needed, it bears much fruit.

To look at it now, busting full of fruit, you don’t have to ask, “What kind of tree is that?” You know. You can see it’s fruit. It always was an apricot tree, but you couldn’t always tell. When the fruit is visible, you know what it is.

That’s agape love and the Christian. You are always a child of God. But when the fruit of agape love appears hanging on your branches, you are seen for who you really are. A disciple of Jesus. One who abides in His love. One who is chosen to love. A friend of Jesus. And the sight of it is glorious.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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